Una Mullally

Society, life and culture on the edge

The Electric Picnic Digest

2015 was the biggest year yet for the Picnic, so how did it do?

Wed, Sep 9, 2015, 11:58


That’s Electric Picnic done for another year. An increased capacity, more “brand visibility” on site, a sold out weekend, and a pretty blockbuster line-up were the dominant features of this year’s festival. So how did it do?

It wasn’t jammers
Fears that the site would be way more crowded due to attendance going up were unfounded. There were rarely any moments when the site felt claustrophobic, apart from the mass exodus after Sam Smith’s set. Blur who?

Props to the Security Folk
Every interaction I had with security was great. They were polite and courteous and knew where things were when you asked. That was my experience, anyway. Same goes for the cops.

No Toilet Drama
One of the most frustratingly consistent complaints at a festival – especially for women – is toilet trouble. Nobody wants to queue for ages and then be confronted by a nightmare inside a portaloo. All weekend, I rarely came across a queue for the women’s toilets. There were plenty of them around the site, and they were mostly clean and stocked with toilet paper, even on Sunday night at Body and Soul as the festival was closing, which shows how well staffed the toilet areas were.

The end of the VIP area buzz
In years gone by, one of the busiest parts of the festival was the ‘guest’ area beside the Main Stage, with blaggers and hangers on spending a fair chunk of the festival milling around, clogging up the toilet queues and ensuring a long wait for a beer. This year, the VIP area was eerily quiet (compared to previous years) the couple of times I was in it to use the bathroom, including at the peak VIP-area-time towards the end of Florence’s headline set. This probably has to do with a crackdown on guest list spots and plus ones. It’s also worth noting that the guest area was strict on who could enter – for example a ‘performer’ wristband meant no access, whereas an ‘artist’ one did. It’s no bad thing that the guest area – once the home of every journalist and vaguely recognisable randomer you could think of – has been culled, and it’s yet another element of the festival that has changed since Festival Republic became involved.

The War On Drugs won
These guys showed why they are one of the best rock bands in the world during their set in Electric Arena Lost In The Dream came to life beautifully with some truly excellent musicianship.

Tent Sound
It’s easy to forget the bad days of sound in festival tents. For years, music rang out through PAs that sounded like they were positioned at the bottom of a well. So it’s heartening to have great sound at the festival all weekend. The sound at FKA twigs in Electric Arena was stunning, as was The War On Drugs noise. The Main Stage sound for Grace Jones was top notch. There was a lovely crispness to the sound in the Little Big Tent as well, where Lapsley and Kwabs played two very good gigs.

Despacio was brilliant
Who knows how long James Murphy and 2manydjs are going to lash out the tunes in this format, but lest hope it’s for another few festival seasons. Despacio was the best addition to this year’s festival.

The FKA twigs Conundrum
Having cancelled last year’s appearance last minute, this is FKA twigs first performance in Ireland and possibly the most buzzed about all weekend. The sound in Electric Arena is spectacular for her set, as is the lighting. Combined, it evokes moments from Massive Attack and Fever Ray. But as a whole, live, you realise the repetitive nature of FKA twigs tunes, most of which are devoid of hooks. FKA twigs is the classic case of an avant garde artist – who is actually quite experimental in her approach and abstract in execution – that the mainstream yearns to have a part of but it just doesn’t fit. FKA twigs will stay a niche artist once the buzz over her aesthetic calms down.

What’s the Demographic Again?
It’s pretty hard to pin down the Picnic’s demographic. Babies and pensioners and everyone in between made up the crowd, but for the most part it was a late-20s, early-30s buzz. I thought there were far fewer teenagers and early twenties folk than previous years, but maybe that’s because I was listening to old people music and not hanging out in the campsites.

Is Bringing a Tiny Child to a Festival Really That Fun?
When the sun went down, there seemed to be an increase in the number of parents wheeling around their small – sometimes sleeping – kids in modified carts. Is this really a fun thing to do? I get the attraction to bringing kids down to the festival who are old enough to play and enjoy themselves, but toddlers and babies? Really? I don’t get it.

Branding Win: Electric Ireland
The electricity company continues to pull crowd with smart novelty bookings. 2Unlimited and Venga Boys are no Bonnie Tyler, but they certainly pulled the crowds and added a bit of knowing craic to the line-up.

Branding Fail: the e-cigarettes area was hideous
A giant area for electric cigarettes? Gross, gross, gross. The promotional space sold to an e-cigarettes brand was as subtle as a smoker’s cough and a hideous addition to the festival. It felt like a really terrible and incongruous branding exercise from the Web Summit had crash-landed in Stradbally. Hopefully the Picnic won’t keep selling off festival space to brands with bad ideas terribly executed.

Take a look at the site map and wonder why the accessible campsite isn’t closer to the action. There are plenty of campsites close to the main arena; Silk Road Camping, Family Camping, Production Camping and Guest/VIP/Artist Camping. It’s simply not acceptable that wheelchair users and others who need to avail of the accessible campsite aren’t accommodated for to the best of the festival’s ability, and this should be changed as a matter of priority. There’s a post on accessibility at the Picnic over on Legless In Dublin.
Good news. Electric Picnic’s PR company LHP have been in touch saying that accessibility issues – especially the campsites – have been put to the production people and will hopefully be changed for next year.

Heineken’s Tokyo Sound Atlas Area Was Uninspiring
I enjoyed the buzz in the Heineken area last year, with its small basketball court and up for it crowd. This year, the efforts at turning a little corner of Stradbally into Tokyo seemed half-hearted. With a karaoke booth, a photo booth, a couple of table tennis tables and Michie Sushi on offer, the set up was just grand, but all too similar to last year. Maybe they just didn’t change things up enough. For now, Casa Bacardi is still the most successful drink brand tie in on site thanks to its towering set, decent DJ line-up and mojitos.

And on that topic…

Worst Drink
Would anyone honestly choose the sickly Heineken cider Orchard Thieves as their festival drink of choice? It’s almost insufferably sweet rather than refreshing and sparked complaints amongst regular cider drinkers in my company (who were still drinking it, though, it has to be said!) The Orchard Thieves team probably won’t care, as they managed to lure plenty of tabloid fodder to their den for some widely circulated social pics.

Best Drink
The Bloody Mary at the Glasshouse in Body & Soul was lauded as the drink of the weekend. The brainchild of Mary and John, inspired by the glasshouse area of their Galway club Electric, they also served up a splendid frozen gin, elderflower and mint collins. I also heard people raving about the rain water poitin cocktails somewhere in the Body & Soul / Trailer Park environs on Sunday night.

Who’s the Coolest Picnic Minister?
Is it Aodhán Ó Ríordáin who took part in the How The Yes Was Won #MarRef panel on Sunday morning in Body & Soul, or Leo Varadkar who was extolling the virtues of the rave in the woods (we’re assuming he means the Red Bull Music Academy area)? The Minister for Health also gave a shout out to the Mother DJ family in the Sindo. Ó Ríordáin’s stay at the festival was brief, so due his festival stamina, penchant for raving in a forest and bigging up Mother, we’ll give this one to Leo.

Best Potato-Based Snack
A toss up between the rather exquisite garlic cheese chips at Adare Farm, and the home fries with chorizo at the Home Fries stand in the Trailer Park, which weren’t so much home fries, as big chunks of slow-fried spuds, brilliantly seasoned and with cheese, garlic, and curry sauce options too.

A Mindfield Shake-Up Wouldn’t Go Amiss
I always try to spend a nice chunk of time in Mindfield because it’s a good place to chill and listen to smart people saying smart things. This year, the Theatre Stage was packed nearly all of the time, An Puball Gaeilge always seemed to have a good crowd, and The Science Gallery was buzzing with people of all ages. That said, familiarity breeds a little bit of fatigue, and I wonder if it’s time for a little bit of a shake up in Mindfield? The Farmer’s Market isn’t up to much, for example, and it would be nice if the programming was a little less predictable, with some new voices. Natural Bitches stuck out as new and lively, and the ’3D-bate’ LAN feedback facility on screens from the audience was a welcome interactive development. There were some good chats to be heard too. Lucinda Creighton was saying some smart things about Britain at the EU in the Leviathan Tent, and in the same venue, there was a very good, vital – and at times tense – conversation about abortion with Colm O’Gorman, Tara Flynn and Carol Hunt. It would be cool if the talks programmed across Mindfield were a little more inventive, so as to avoid the well-trodden conversational paths that are repeated at many festival talking shops and events.

Most Discussed Topic
That would be the marriage referendum. I did two talks related to it alone in Leviathan and Body & Soul, and there was at least one more happening in An Puball Gaeilge.

Grace Jones Showed How It’s Done
You can be an icon all you want, but putting on a brilliant live show is another thing altogether. Grace Jones managed both win one of the most compelling, fun, and high-spirited sets of the weekend.

Best Stage
The Salty Dog has built up its own dedicated fanbase at this point, and rightly so too. I had a great time there on Friday night watching Redneck Manifesto. It looks great, the sound is decent, there’s a nice vibe amongst the crowd, it’s well-programmed, and in the adjacent snack bar, you could avail of decent filter coffee, a mean grilled cheese and potato wedges with Thai green curry sauce delivered by friendly staff. Winner. There’s also a decent slab of divilment in its after-hours buzz.

Why Don’t People Buy Charging Blocks?
I’m always slightly bemused by the queues for charging facilities. Why waste ages queuing when you can bring a cheap charging block with you?

Pop Music Is Popular
The impression some have of Electric Picnic as some kind of refuge for hipsters is a myth. The big pop acts are the ones who drew the largest crowds, especially with Florence, and the massive crowd of kids for Sam Smith. This isn’t anything particularly new, as the mainstreaming of the Picnic already happened a while ago.

There Will Always Be FOMO
I missed Shamir (heard mixed reports, with some saying his packed set at Body & Soul was too downtempo, others saying he was brilliant), Tame Impala (heard nothing but good things) and Roisin Murphy (a highlight of the weekend for many), but you can’t see it all.

Local Heroes Reign
Once again, an Irish festival shows that local acts are amongst some of the most popular. Ham Sandwich already graduated to the Main Stage, but I couldn’t get into the packed Other Voices church in the woods for their second set. The place was absolutely jammers. Le Galaxie upped their festival game with on-stage Segways, which is hilariously brilliant. I missed Villagers Sunday turn in Electric Arena, but again heard it was great. The Coronas pulled a more than decent crowd on the Main Stage, indicating again how radio-friendly pop and rock works well at the new school Picnic. I have to say I was very surprised that Wyvern Lingo managed to pull the crowd they did in Electric Arena on Sunday lunchtime, but that goes to show their rising popularity. I’m told there were around three times as many people outside the Fight Like Apes show as were inside Jerry Fish’s tent. Daithi played a stormer of a set on the Body & Soul Main Stage, and people were also raving about Plutonic Dust’s graduation to that stage.

Best Area
You still can’t really top Body & Soul for late night atmosphere, a nice selection of drinks, some little cafe hideaways, great bookings, and a vibe that switches between completely kicked back to manically ravey in a flash. I also enjoyed the trippy Pagoda Stage and Mother’s closing four-hour set on Sunday night on the Earthship Stage.

Is having the Red Bull Music Academy far away a good idea?
Probably, all in all. It means louder sound and a more elusive vibe considering it’s a fair aul stroll away. The area is beyond the Oscar Wilde campsite far away from the main arena, meaning you’re not going to stumble across it. I never made it, but would be interested to hear how it went this year.

Best Expanded Area
The Trailer Park expanded nicely this year, although it also felt slightly claustrophobic and could have done with being a little more spread out. There was some decent chai on offer, good corn dogs, and some really fun design. The stages were fun with loads going on, so it really felt like the Trailer Park made its mark this year, as opposed to the area being a bit of an afterthought.

Best Programming
The Other Voices area struck the right tone in its much improved church-tent-stage, with beautiful lighting, brilliant sound, and an all round cool vibe. But it’s the quality of the music, and how well it all fits together that really makes this stage excel. As well as acts such as The Staves, Wyvern Lingo, Gavin James Ham Sandwich and Colm Mac Con Iomaire, Glen Hansard and Villagers also dropped in for special guest slots. Other Voices offers something that is missing from a lot of the festival, and that’s an air of spontaneity and secrecy that gives your festival experience an element of surprise. You can watch some of those performances here.

Best Place to Sleep
There were teepees and bell tents, huts and yurts, podpads, campervans, and offsite hotels and B&Bs, but the best accommodation this year were Air BnB’s archipods.

€6.20 for a beer
It’s too much. Nothing more to say.

The More Different Bars The Better
The Wine Bar in Mindfield, the Prosecco Bar, the Glasshouse and Car Au Vin are all good for a bit of variety. Not everyone wants a €6.20 lager.

Best Step Up
I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve seen Daithí play and therefore the number of times I’ve said that he has played the set of his life, but his stint on the Body & Soul Main Stage was yet another step up.

Best Stamina
Avril Stanley who runs Body & Soul did the whole weekend from a golf buggy with a busted leg.

The Lack of Rain Helped
Irish festivals live and die by weather. It was cold at night, but no rain made the whole thing easier.

So, in conclusion, Electric Picnic is not the festival it used to see. It is now a well-oiled, big name, slick, crowd-pleasing machine. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. The hidden after-hours spots and sly cocktail joints and secret DJ sets are still there, you just have to look harder for them, and only a portion of the festival crowd will actually want to. For the rest of the masses, Electric Picnic is the Big Daddy of Irish music festivals now. What it lacks in chaos and queerness, it makes up for in convenience and professionalism. The hassles of four hour traffic jams, or being scolded by security, or not being able to get something other than beer within 500 metres, are all gone.

For a good few years, the Picnic was very predictable for me, as you would literally know the site by heart down to the positioning of food stalls. But adding bits to the Trailer Park, coming across a mirrored perspex booth playing techno in the woods, and the addition of Despacio and The Glasshouse mixed things up sufficiently to still give it that crucial festival element of exploration and surprise. People who go to festivals regularly have high standards and are demanding punters. The Picnic fulfilled those desires in 2015. Let’s see what happens next year.

All of our Electric Picnic 2015 coverage is here.

(Photo: Glamo, me, Fionn Kidney, during my Gold Party set at the Glasshouse, Body & Soul)